In an early episode of popular television series South Park, Stan’s uncle Jimbo takes the boys on a hunting trip. Up in the mountains, Jimbo explains that because “Democrats have passed a lot of laws to stop us from hunting”, they can only shoot animals that pose “an immediate threat.” Therefore, before shooting any animal, they have to yell “It’s coming right for us!”
I don’t think anyone in Congress has used quite the same terms, but there seems to be a consensus that gun control legislation is “coming right for us”: Congress will pass some kind of gun control law and that will be that, a proper and complete response to an outbreak of tragedy.
Notwithstanding the question of whether an assault weapons ban or universal background checks would help reduce the problem of gun violence in America, such legislation doesn’t address the problem; only the symptoms. We can take away a few of the most dangerous weapons; we can take weapons away from a few of the most dangerous people; but we still face a more significant underlying problem.
An assault weapons ban or a ban on high capacity magazines isn’t going to stop what happened to Omar at the end of The Wire. It’s not going to stop what happened with Jovan Belcher. It’s not going to stop what happened at Columbine, where legally purchased shotguns and handguns, not assault weapons, were used to kill 13 people.
Let’s take a look, for example, at Switzerland. The Swiss have no standing army, relying on compulsory militia service for adult males. Almost 500,000 Swiss households have a military assault rifle, because militia members are required to be ready to fight at a moment’s notice. Switzerland has 45.7 firearms per 100 people.
Compare this with the United States, which has 88.8 firearms per 100 people, almost twice as many as Switzerland.
But the difference in gun homicide rates is telling: In 2010, Switzerland had 0.52 per 100,000 people, but the US had 3.6 per 100,000 people. That’s seven times the homicide rate in a country that has only twice the gun ownership rate.
Clearly the problem goes further than the quantity or type of guns we have.
When sportscaster Bob Costas took 90 seconds during halftime of a football game last December to talk about Jovan Belcher and what Costas calls America’s “gun culture,” I doubt he was anticipating the depth of the mess into which he was wading. Costas was criticized heavily over the next several weeks, but I believe his ideas are worth restating. He elaborated in January in an interview with Jon Stewart: “you’ve got a lot of people in this country … whose idea is, as they leave the house, ‘I’ve got my wallet, got my watch, got my Glock.’” Costas’ worry is that some have begun to regard guns and violence as an essential, unavoidable part of life.
And there’s the real difference between the US and Switzerland: the gun culture. The problem is not the Second Amendment or District of Columbia v. Heller or, really, guns at all. It’s our attitudes.
As Costas says, “we’ve changed the culture on a lot of things without changing the laws … no one repealed the First Amendment, but we’ve changed people’s attitudes toward racist or homophobic remarks. Cigarettes remain a legal product, but attitudes toward them and awareness of their dangers have taken hold, so the culture has been changed.”
There are plenty of Americans who use their guns for legitimate purposes like sport or self-defense. We ought to work towards an America where those are the only purposes for which guns are used. There are plenty of Americans who have a healthy respect for gun safety. We ought to work towards an America where every gun owner stores and uses his or her gun safely.
We ought to address mental health in this country as it relates to gun ownership. We ought to address the limits placed on the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms as it tries to implement Federal gun laws. We ought to require background checks so that we can be sure guns are not sold to those who are known to be dangerous. These things have a low cost and a high reward.
What we cannot do is simply yell “It’s coming right for us”, enact hasty and controversial gun control legislation, and declare the problem fixed. The culture needs to be changed before gun crimes in America can be brought under control. This is a battle that will take years, not months. It’s just not that simple; Congress would do well to remember that.
Nathan Reeves is a 1L. His column runs every other Tuesday.
The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Record.